Kyla Irwin has lost track of the number of times she has watched her mother and father coach a State College girls’ basketball team to a District 6 championship.
She has sat in the bleachers, or near the bench as a student manager, always cheering and watching others celebrate.
When the ball bounced off the rim and into her hands, the clock hit all zeros and the horn sounded, she pumped her arm and got to be in the middle of the fun.
“It feels so good to finally win one of these of my own,” Irwin said. “I’ve seen so many of these my mom win, I finally get my own. It’s awesome. It’s amazing.”
Behind Irwin’s 24 points and 11 rebounds, including her team’s final four points in the last 32 seconds, the Lady Little Lions wrapped up their first Class AAAA title since 2010 with a 60-57 victory over Altoona on Thursday night at St. Francis’ DeGol Arena.
State College (15-7) will face the fifth-place finisher out of District 7, either Mount Lebanon or Bethel Park, in the opening round of the PIAA tournament on March 7.
“We haven’t won one of these in a really long time,” coach Bethany Irwin said. “This team is never-say-die, and they really started peaking at the right time and everybody started doing what they were supposed to be doing.”
Irwin’s daughter, a sophomore, was not the only Lady Little Lions posting a double-double, with junior Jalyn Shelton-Burleigh adding 10 points and 11 rebounds, including a number of key offensive rebounds.
“My J-train,” said Bethany Irwin, whose husband, Rob, has been a longtime assistant coach for the program’s collection of district titles. “I love that kid. She’s a tank. She plays hard and she’s really helped out. You can’t defend both of them at the same time.”
Ali Treglia added a dozen points and Bridget King netted 11.
Darby Lee also was a serious presence inside for the Lady Mountain Lions (10-12), netting 26 points, including 14 of her team’s 19 points in the final quarter.
“I’m glad she’s graduating,” Kyla Irwin said of the forward bound for Hartford. “It gives me relief I don’t have to worry about Darby as much. It was a battle. She’s physical, but it makes the game fun.”
Sarah Donley added 15 points and Lauren Donley netted nine.
State College held the lead for most of the second half before Altoona tied it with two Sarah Donley free throws with 2:28 left, when Treglia was whistled for her fifth foul.
Lauren Donley then drilled a 3-pointer, and it appeared Altoona had the momentum.
But the Lady Little Lions would net eight of the game’s final 10 points.
King hit a layup, and a sharp post move for Shelton-Burleigh put State College back in front. A Lee layup put the Lady Mountain Lions back ahead by one with 44 seconds left, but King fed the ball low to Irwin, and the sophomore worked for space on her defender to put State College ahead for good at 58-57 with 32 seconds left.
The teams traded possessions before the Lady Mountain Lions stepped out of bounds, and Irwin drew a foul with 12 seconds left, calmly draining both attempts from the line.
“Just take a deep breath, focus and that’s what I do each time,” Kyla Irwin said. “That’s what I do each time. I focus on each one and block out whatever’s around me.”
“Those are the two biggest free throws I’ve seen her take right now in her high school career,” Bethany Irwin said. “That’s really good.”
Altoona, which had six 3-pointers in the game, had its best long-range shooters on the floor, but no one was open, and McKenzie Hatch was forced to drive.
“We had a four-guard offense in there,” coach Jill Helsel said. “We wanted to penetrate and kick it to the open person. We kind of overloaded one side a little too much, but we didn’t get the shot off.”
Hatch tried to hit a layup with two seconds left but missed, and Irwin cradled the rebound while enjoying the moment.
“That rebound was in my hands and I just needed to hang onto it,” Kyla Irwin said.
The Lady Little Lions knew they had to play tight man-to-man defense on the perimeter to hang onto that three-point margin.
“I said, ‘We don’t want a three, but if they hit a two, don’t worry about it unless they call time out,’” Irwin said. “We knew we had that three-point advantage. We just didn’t want to give up the three.”
Twice State College got Lee into foul trouble and out of the game, including most of the second quarter with two fouls and the latter half of the third with three.
But the first half lead was never larger than five, and the largest Lady Little Lion lead of the game, 41-32, was right before Lee took a seat with her third infraction.
“Every time she got into a little bit of foul trouble, we tried to make a run and we couldn’t make a run,” Bethany Irwin said. “I’m proud of the way the girls finished.”
The Lady Little Lions also had a solid night of shooting, making 25 of 50 field goals (50 percent), with so many of those shots from within seven feet of the basket.
“The coaches have been stressing, just go with the basics, no fancy stuff,” Shelton-Burleigh said. “Just be plain vanilla. That’s what we did down there today.”
It delivered a night to celebrate, and a return to the PIAA championships.
“It was so good. I cried a little bit,” Shelton-Burleigh said. “After three years being able to get this one my junior, it’s just amazing.”